Identifying the change we want to make is a great first step in the right direction when it comes to setting goals. In our first post of this two-part series, we examined the process of identifying why we choose our goals. Focusing on the identification process to clarify and prioritize our goals can be very helpful in getting us on the right track.
The “How” we go about setting our goals is important in determining our success. If there is no clear road map for the “How,” it may affect our confidence and motivation and wreck havoc on our self-esteem. I recommend you also write down your goals. This helps you clarify what you want and holds you accountable.
Setting S.M.A.R.T goals is excellent methodology for objective setting and is commonly used in Cognitive behavioral Therapy (CBT). The process helps make something that otherwise seems lofty and unattainable easy to envision becoming a reality.
S.M.A.R.T stands for:
Be specific about what it is that you want. Goals that are too broad or vague are difficult to achieve because the steps you need to take won’t be clear. Instead of “I want to travel more this year”, say, “I want to take a least 2 trips abroad and 2 trips to other American cities this year.” This helps you understand what you are specifically working towards.
To help you envision your goals, you may want to ask yourself these questions:
- What do I want?
- Why is this important?
- What resources are needed?
- Who else is involved?
Ask yourself if the goal can be achieved by asking yes or no questions. When you attach specific metrics to your goal, it’s even better since you can easily track your progress.
Some good questions to determine measurability are:
- What are the specific units of measure?
- How will I know I’m making progress?
- How will I know when it is achieved?
It’s important to recognize what you are able to achieve, as demonstrated by what you’ve done in the past as well as resources and supports that will help get you to your goal. If your objectives are not achievable, then you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. In the previous example, traveling on four trips over the course of the year may not be doable if you haven’t started saving and don’t have the means to take this many trips. In setting this goal, you may realize it will take six months to save for that dream trip to Spain. Fine-tune your goal to something realistic; you will feel better about it.
Some good questions to determine attainability are:
- How can I accomplish this?
- How realistic is it based on resources and obstacles?
Make sure the goal is in alignment with your life and your overall objectives. Say for example you set a goal to lose 20 pounds in order to work toward your larger desire of gaining more self-confidence. However, weight loss alone may not necessarily improve your confidence. It may be more relevant to focus on finding acceptance with yourself, increasing workouts to gain strength (so you can appreciate what your body can do for you), and on limiting negative self-talk.
Some good questions to determine the relevance of goals are:
- Why is this important for me?
- Is the goal worthy of the time and resources required?
- How is it aligned with my overall objectives?
Is now the right time to work towards this goal? A timeline for when you expect your goal to be accomplished serves as a barometer to help you stay on track. It can also be helpful to establish clear benchmarks to measure your progress along the way.
The following questions can help you determine a time-bound goal:
- What can I expect to have accomplished in 3 months? 6 months? By the end of the year?
- Considering the other priorities in my life, is this a realistic timeline?
- What are the obstacles to starting now?
Break the goals down into smaller steps
After writing down your SMART goal, write down all the steps required to achieve that goal. Consider the potential obstacles and have a plan to mitigate them. For the travel goal, consider in advance what workdays you will need to take off, the time of year for each trip, your friends’ schedules, and the finances needed to pay for the trips. Putting a system in place to track your progress, like the table below, can be very helpful.
Breaking down lofty goals into actionable steps is also helpful. One theme that often arises in my practice is the desire to increase self-confidence. The steps towards this goal might be to increase awareness of “vulnerable” feelings by identifying and writing them down when they arise along with what seems to triggers them. We may also focus on limiting habits such as profusely apologizing when we haven’t done anything wrong and quieting negative self-talk. These steps can be easily measured.
Make sure you visualize what it will take to make progress towards that goal and how it will fit into your life. Take a look at your commute and work schedule and find some extra time you can use to work on completing small steps towards your goal. Put the incremental steps in your calendar. Scheduling the steps you are taking towards accomplishing your goals puts you in control of them. Treat the steps towards your goals as if they were important meetings. For some people, an app like Evernote can also be very helpful to write down and track your progress.
Tips to keep in mind along the way
Avoid all or nothing thinking
Allow enough room for flexibility and adjustments. Consider the bigger picture and practice some self-compassion. Being aware of what needs to change and of what is isn’t working for you can be very valuable. Consider in advance how you will navigate around obstacles when they appear. If your goal is to run a marathon, you may want a plan to get your run completed even on days when a torrential downpour is preventing you from completing your 5-mile loop. This might mean investing in a gym membership to access a treadmill, or having the flexibility to adjust your run schedule for the entire week to ensure you get the miles in.
If it doesn’t happen, what does it mean about you?
Remember, although it’s good to have goals and to strive towards self-improvement, your achievements don’t make you who you are; you are not the sum of your accomplishments. Having self-compassion means to pay attention to the self-imposed pressure you are putting on yourself to accomplish your goal. If you find you are not making progress and get discouraged, ask yourself, “What does this really mean about me, does it truly determine my value?” This may help you to put things back in perspective and to be gentler with yourself.
Kerrie Thompson, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice downtown NYC. To explore working with her, contact her here.